Guy Brett has described the works of Cildo Meireles as ‘philosophical objects’ or ‘material thoughts’, pointing out the strong links between the Brazilian artist’s oeuvre and the various approaches of Conceptual art. It is from this unity of concept and object, of identity and materiality, that Meireles’ art derives its strength.
Cruzeiro do Sul (Southern Cross, 1969–70) is considered one of his masterpieces: a diminutive cube made of oak and pine – two types of wood sacred to the Brazilian Tupi Indians as a source of fire – is exhibited in a large gallery. The explosive potential of the small work isolated in the white, empty space allows parallels with various socio-political, cultural and philosophical realities. Likewise La Bruja (The Witch, 1979–81) effectively illustrates the concept of ‘material thought’: a household broom leans against the wall, but instead of short bristles the shaft holds thousands of cotton threads, which cover the gallery and the rest of the building in a monstrous mess. The broom is a tool for cleanliness and order, while the endless cotton strands seem to imply a descent into chaos.
Since the late 1960s Meireles has experimented with various strategies and a wide range of materials including banknotes and coins, bottles, vinyl records, water, straw, gold, gas, fire, wood, metal, plastic and paper bags. However, this show, entitled Algum desenho (1963–2005), which roughly translates as ‘Some Drawing’, brought together for the first time a selection of about 200 works on paper, from early drawings by the artist as a 15-year-old to his most recent sketches. The show had the character of a chronologically arranged study room, with three-dimensional pieces and photographic documentation supplementing his prodigious output of works on paper (including postcard-size reproductions of an additional 800 drawings). The exhibition’s organization also allowed visitors to follow the trajectory of Meireles’ career against the backdrop of censorship and intellectual oppression during the long years of Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Surprisingly, only a small number of Meireles’ drawings relate directly to his austere sculptural work. There are the well-known quasi-technical drawings of the Espaços Virtuais (Virtual Spaces, 1967–8), the Espaços Virtuais: Cantos (Virtual Spaces: Corners, 1967–8) and the Volumes Virtuais (Virtual Volumes, 1968–9), all executed on graph paper. Another beautiful series is a group of studies of matchboxes, such as Sem título (Caixa de Fósforo) (Untitled [Matchbox], 1979). These drawings were made at the same time as a performance piece the artist presented in Rio de Janeiro in 1979, O Sermão da Montanha: Fiat Lux (The Sermon on the Mount: Let There Be Light), in which 126,000 matchboxes were piled up in a mirrored room whose floor was covered with black sandpaper. Five performers guarded the pile of highly flammable material for 24 hours.
The majority of Meireles’ works on paper, it turns out, are figurative and highly Expressionistic, depicting aspects of gritty urban life, sexuality, crime and the individual, seen as a socially and politically conditioned being. While the drawings share a certain iconography with the sculptural work – the light bulb, the chair, the table and chains recur in both – in general they are characterized by an almost brutal physicality. In the drawings of the late 1970s faces are reduced to wide mouths with enormous teeth. Ugly and angry, they seem to force us to rethink our understanding of the sculptural work.
Meireles has expressed a degree of discomfort with his work being classified as Conceptual art. In the light of these previously unseen drawings, one wonders whether he might not have a point about the reductiveness of such a reading. In an annexe to the exhibition he constructed a new version of La Bruja in which the broom’s threads are concentrated within the limits of the room. Even though the space cannot be entered, after experiencing the drawings one starts to sense a certain existential and physical pain or tension, which may relate to a renewed, broader understanding of Meireles’ work as a whole.